Boston — This week's US Supreme Court ruling barring sex discrimination in the Jaycees calls into question the constitutionality of exclusive memberships in other groups.
For instance, will other male-only groups, such as Rotary, Kiwanis, and Boy Scouts, eventually be required to admit women? And will organizations whose memberships are based on religious beliefs or nationality be forced to broaden their bases?
Women's rights - specifically, membership in previously all-male civic groups - got a boost from the United States Supreme Court in an Independence Day eve decision. However, the broad impact of the high court's 7-to-0 ruling allowing states to mandate Jaycees to admit women as full members remains unclear.
The high court, in this ruling, upheld Minnesota's public accommodations law, which requires Jaycees to grant full membership to women. On one hand, the case involved the right of such a civic group to invoke ''freedom of association'' as justification for a nationwide policy excluding women from full-membership status. On the other, it tested the constitutionality of a Minnesota statute (as it applied to the Jaycees) that bans sex discrimination in ''public accommodations.''
The high court supported the opinion of Minnesota's Supreme Court, which termed the Jaycees a ''place of public accommodation.'' The Minnesota act holds that under this definition, the group could not deny access to anyone ''because of race, color, creed, religion, disability, national origin, or sex.''
Writing for the Supreme Court, Associate Justice William J. Brennan said: ''In deciding that the act reaches the Jaycees, the Minnesota Supreme Court used a number of specific and objective criteria - regarding the organization's size, selectivity, commercial nature, and use of public facilities.''
Justice Brennan indicated that the high court did not view Minnesota's public accommodations law as overly broad - as the Jaycees asserted - and said other groups ''may be entitled to constitutional protections from (its) operation.''
The United States Jaycees, formerly the US Junior Chamber of Commerce, has some 270,000 members and 7,000 chapters across the country. It says it is dedicated to developing America's future leaders. National policy has excluded women from full status as members and from holding Jaycees office. Several local chapters have bucked this discriminatory practice, however, and admitted women. Others who follow national policy have been challenged in the courts by feminists and women's rights advocates.
In another key Supreme Court decision this week, civil rights activists did not fare as well. The case involved the right of private citizens to go to court to prod the federal government to apply sanctions (denial or rescinding tax breaks) to racially discriminatory private schools. But by a 5-to-3 vote, the justices decided that such constituencies did not have the necessary legal standing to file such suits.
Just a year ago, in a much-publicized case, the high court generally upheld Internal Revenue Service (IRS) policy of denying tax breaks for private schools discriminating against blacks. But no specific standards were set for compliance. At issue were exemptions withdrawn from Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which bars interracial dating, and the Goldsboro Christian Schools in North Carolina, which refused admission to blacks. Both claimed their racial policies were based on religious convictions and were therefore constitutionally protected. But the Supreme Court rejected this argument.
IRS's tax-exemption denial policy dates back to 1970, and since that time over 100 private schools have lost or been denied exemptions based on racial discrimination. This week's court ruling - which many see as limiting the impact of the decision in the Bob Jones case - overturns an appellate decision that gave black parents and schoolchildren an absolute right to challenge IRS policies on the tax-exempt status of private schools.
In a trio of rulings, the Supreme Court also set some limits on prisoners' rights. The tribunal said inmates can no longer challenge allegedly unreasonable searches and seizures; they have no constitutional right to ''contact visitation'' (kissing and hugging) with spouses and children while awaiting trial; and unconvicted jail inmates do not have the right to be present when their cells are searched.